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Photo finish?

National | Money is important in the presidential contest-but in a race down to the wire, campaign operatives are counting waking hours rather than dollars and cents

Issue: "The 2000 vote," Nov. 4, 2000

After more than a year and well over $100 million, the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore headed toward their final week in a statistical dead heat, setting up one of the closest elections in a generation.

On Oct. 25, Mr. Gore edged ahead in some daily tracking polls for the first time since Oct. 9-but every major index still had the race well within the margin of error. That means that despite all the polls and pundits and prognostications, no one can be sure who actually is in the lead just days before America heads to the voting booth.

Not surprisingly, both candidates were working like the 2-point underdogs they might very well be. While Mr. Bush returned repeatedly to must-win states like Florida and Michigan, he unleashed his 29 fellow GOP governors to fire up the troops elsewhere. By cranking up phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts, their statewide political machines could make the difference in several tight contests.

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Mr. Gore, meanwhile, returned to the peripatetic campaign style that helped him swamp rival Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries. His typical campaign day starts with a 7 a.m. coffee klatsch at a diner or in the home of an "average" voter-"the kitchen table campaign," his staff is calling it. After the daily breakfast photo-op, he kicks into high gear, leapfrogging around the country in quick appearances planned with all the precision of a military operation. He hits up to four states a day, putting in 15 hours a day on the stump.

Developments in the Electoral College count, not the overall national polls, determined schedules; states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota, once firmly in the Democrats' column, are now back in the tossup category, according to state-by-state surveys. Hence, Mr. Gore's defensiveness on issues like big government ("I'm opposed to big government") and gun control ("none of my proposals would have any effect on hunters or sportsmen or people who use rifles"). Even Illinois, where the Bush campaign pulled all its ads earlier in October, is once again a battleground: On Oct. 24, Mr. Bush visited the state for the first time in weeks, and his campaign again began spending money in pursuit of Illinois' 22 electoral votes.

The Electoral College math may explain why Mr. Bush in late October seemed upbeat and energized on the campaign trail, while Mr. Gore sometimes seemed grimly determined. With waking hours a more precious commodity than campaign dollars, the vice president continued to re-visit states that his predecessor could take for granted. Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Oregon-and even Mr. Gore's home state of Tennessee, with its 11 electoral votes-were in the too-close-to-call category.

Mr. Bush had worries of his own. From the start, Bush advisers figured that Democratic wins in California and New York would be offset by easy victories in the two big states where Bushes govern, Texas and Florida. But brother Jeb was unable to close the deal in the Sunshine State, thanks largely to the presence of Joseph Lieberman on the Democratic ticket. Florida's sizable Jewish vote seems to be canceling out more reliably Republican blocs such as Cuban-Americans, forcing Mr. Bush to spend precious resources in a state once considered a gimme.

Still, traditional Republican states-mostly in the deep South and mountain West-looked more solid than those states that typically go Democratic. And the reason was simple: Ralph Nader. While Pat Buchanan presented little danger on the right, Mr. Nader was a major threat on the left. The longtime activist, running a shoestring campaign devoid of federal funds, continued to draw away votes that the vice president might have expected.

Indeed, the surprise Republican tilt in Minnesota was almost entirely attributable to Mr. Nader, who has broad appeal in a state that prides itself on an independent-even quirky-voting pattern. Earlier polls had Mr. Gore enjoying a wide lead, but a Nader surge reached 8 percent in one late October poll. That support came almost entirely at the expense of the vice president, who trailed Mr. Bush 44 percent to 41 percent.

Other late October polls showed the Nader influence: Mr. Gore led by just 1 percentage point in Oregon, while 6 percent said they would vote for Mr. Nader. In Washington, Mr. Gore's lead was 2 points, with 5 percent holding out for Mr. Nader. In the crucial state of Michigan, the two major candidates were dead even at 43 percent, with Mr. Nader attracting a decisive 3 percent of the vote.

In public, Democrats sounded confident that liberal voters would come home to the party. But Mr. Nader's apparent strength in six key states was just one more ulcer in what was already a double-Maalox campaign.

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